Ah, the architecture, the fascinating history with the French and the British, street art, biking, and of course the food. Montreal is now on my top three list of favorite cities, even rivaling my love of Paris and Tokyo.
If I were granted eight wishes on aspects of Montreal I would bring back to Seattle, these would be my picks.
1) You can order the staff meal: Regardless of whether or not the chef’s hottest dish is sitting on my plate, I always want to eat what the staff is eating. At Sushi Kappo Tamura in Seattle, I once eyed the staff eating a fish collar soup, and thought about dropping one of the crew a couple of Andrew Jacksons in exchange for his helping.
At Big in Japan in Montreal, a quirky and fun izakaya, you can order whatever the staff is eating. If the staff meal is anything like the regular items on the menu, expect to be treated with a dish that is technically sound, yet crazy at the same time.
I ordered a bone marrow that was split in half, flavored with dashi garlic, and executed flawlessly. Then, the dish got crazy and brilliantly weird, as it was topped with a heap of olives, shrimp, wasabi mashed potatoes, snap peas, pinto and kidney beans.
These recipes could easily originate from a chef’s Alice in Wonderland ‘shroom trips. Somebody had better get the man in the kitchen some more Pink Floyd tunes because Big in Japan’s imaginative concoctions are spot on.
2) Pancakes for dessert: I have heard of eating breakfast for dinner, but what’s even better than that is eating dinner, and then ordering breakfast afterwards. In this case, it is an order of the “short stack” at Le Bremner. 31 year old celebrity chef Chuck Hughes, who defeated Bobby Flay on Top Chef, is the owner of this deliberately hard-to-find restaurant that is tucked below a clothing shop on Montreal’s oldest street, Rue Saint Paul.
We can thank his right hand man, Danny Smiles for sharing his family’s pancake recipe that is topped with Pimm’s butter.
3) Kitchen front and center: Open kitchens are becoming as commonplace as chefs serving salads from their own garden. But what is still a rare find is a restaurant where the kitchen is front and center.
At La Fabrique, located in the Latin Quarter, the kitchen reminds me of a boxing match where the chefs are in the ring and the spectators (aka – diners) can take a peek at the action in the kitchen while enjoying a leg of lamb and a bottle of wine.
4) Access to good food 24×7: Montreal’s famous wood-fired bagels are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at the top two bagel-termiums in the city: Fairmount (open since 1919) and St. Viatteur. Locals say the around-the-clock production ensures you always gett a fresh one.
5) Spas on boats: I am eternally loyal to the Korean spa up North in Seattle, but if Bota Spa opened an outpost on Lake Union, I would be all over it. Locals say this comprehensive spa equipped with Nordic baths, outdoor pools, facial/massage treatments, and a restaurant, can be a little like Beverly Hills 90210 in the summer, but when you are looking all zen and tan, what’s wrong with being seen?
6) Protected bike lanes: Seattle may take the prize in spandex-wearing bike commuters, but with Montreal’s seemingly endless kilometers of protected bike lanes, you will find a plethora of Montrealers clad in both street wear, business attire, and high-heels zipping around the city.
7) Ethnic food scene. The Caribbean-styled octopus at the outdoor Atwater Market and the Syrian food at Le Petit Alep are just as memorable as the iconic Canadian poutine and maple sugar pies.
At Le Petit Alep, the fiery red-colored muhamara, a roasted red pepper dip, is enough to give your neighborhood Middle Eastern restaurant a complex for serving a pale-colored version.
8) Casual attire, high-end food: Maybe because the summers are 90 degrees and 100% humidity or because the culture is so laid-back, but there are many places where you can eat high-grade food in shorts and flip flops that would get you kicked out of most fancy joints.
At Cafe Sardine, a coffee shop/cafe during the day and a restaurant at night, steak tartare and Spanish Tortilla is the type of edgy cuisine you would expect to find at a white tablecloth formal restaurant in New York. But here, you can skip the jacket and come as you are.
One of Cafe Sardine’s chefs, Aaron Langville, is a former alumni of #1 rated restaurant in the world, Noma in Copenhagen.